Spooky Action’s production of The Man Who is a remarkable theatricalization of reality as experienced by patients with brain damage.
The play was inspired by neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other Clinical Tales, based on 24 case studies of his patients with neurological disorders.
Conceived and written by the world famous British stage director, Peter Brook, whose play Battlefield was recently seen at The Kennedy Center, The Man Who, in a succession of 17 scenes, shows us the myriad perceptions of reality of which the brain is capable. As with his other experimental works, The Man Who calls for courage and wild leaps of imagination, not only on the part of the actors but also the audience.
Sounds of seagulls and breaking ocean waves come from overhead. Lights rise on an open stage. Set design, all in gray, by Giorgos Tsappas is purposefully abstract, consisting of two arches, stage right, as if taken from a cathedral. One large square box frame is set upstage for screen projections.
Four gifted actors, David Gaines, Tuyet Thi Pham, Carlos Saldana and Eva Wilhelm, well-directed by Richard Henrich, take turns playing the Doctor and Patient as effortlessly as a game of musical chairs. They deliver superb, powerful performances, an excellent reason to see this play. The switch casting erases the fine line between who is normal and who is not. A doctor can be a patient; and a patient, a doctor.
The random vignettes comprise a serious exploration of an infinitely complex subject—the human mind and how it works. Ultimately it is an exploration of the agonizing pain suffered when the brain fails to work.
There’s the enactment of a patient with visual agnosia, the highlighted case in Sacks’ book. Carlos Saldana describes a red glove as “a receptacle of sorts….it could be a purse.” Eva Wilhelm and Carlos grope around until Eva thrusts her hand into the “receptacle” and Carlos with elation, exclaims: “It’s a red glove.” Eva ultimately figures out what the prop is by interacting with it, fitting her hand into it. Carlos tells us he is a professor of music. He only recognizes a person by the sound of their voice. His reality is based on his experience. But when Carlos claims his wife is a hat, he is challenged and taken to the eye doctor. The diagnosis? There’s nothing wrong with his eyes; the problem is in the brain.
In scene 11, Loss of Proprioception, for instance. Proprioception is the sense of body position, movement of body parts, and change from movement to the body at rest. The sudden feeling that feet or legs are missing from the mental self-image triggers the need to look down at the limbs to make sure they’re still there. When David as Patient is in a clinical office, seated in a chair with his legs extended on two chairs in a line-up, he covers his legs with a white sheet. He then quickly removes the sheet and hits his legs and yells for help. “Somebody put an amputated leg in my bed,” he shouts. He no longer recognizes his legs as part of his body. He has lost his sense of proprioception affecting his ability to move. Eva in white doctor’s uniform rushes in and helps him stand and walk. The next scene cuts to Carlos in the doctor’s white coat, and Tuyet Thi Pham collapsed in a chair complaining that she cannot move, “I’ve lost all sensation in my body. And what’s the point of having an active brain and no mobility?” We empathize with her despair as we watch Tuyet struggle to walk and hold an object at the same time.
The Man Who
closes June 4, 2017
Details and tickets
At one agonizing point, Saldana plays a person with Tourette’s syndrome. The actor is all convulsive, uncontrollable jerks, and is disturbing to watch, until Carlos says, “It’s no joke to be like this….They used to lock us up. But now, we’re in all the best books. We’re in fashion. But nobody gets to know us.” The disabled person we are viewing is humanized and we are asked to empathize.
Composer David Schulman’s uplifting, lyrically lovely melody, filled with violin tremolo, descends over us and brings the moment to a memorable climax. The music is more than a bridge; it becomes part of the experience, aided by soft, glowing red upstage lighting by Colin Dieck. The fusion is elevating and beautiful.
Although one scene follows another, there is no real arc, no connecting story narrative. In spite of some moments when randomness is overwhelming and confusion takes over, there’s a sense of magical wonder to the scenes that lead up to the last stage image: actor David Gaines, alone on stage, wanders among speckled lighted spots, like fractured reality.
Kudos to composer Schulman, a violinist, whose captivating, original compositions, piped in from overhead, alternate between eerie and weird plucked string compositions to exquisite, lyrically-lovely, soothing string quartets. These musical bridges do more than unify the random scenes. The piece is elevated beyond the documentary. Case studies are transformed into tone poems that grip our souls with empathy for these people. His compositions carry and support the actors’ grotesque behaviors, intense acting and emotional outbursts. The plucked string compositions create suspense and foreboding. Lyrical passages from string quartet keep us emotionally on edge and alert to psychological pain the patients are suffering.
Brook described illuminating how the brain works as entering “the valley of astonishment.” Most certainly, it raises some intellectually challenging questions that might be apt for post-show discussions. I was left with a sense of wonder: How do we understand and connect with each other?
The Man Who by Peter Brooks and Marie-Héléne Estienne. Director: Richard Henrich, artistic director of Spooky Action Theater. Associate Director: Elena Day. Lighting Design: Colin Dieck. Set Design: Giorgos Tsappas. Scenic Artist: Mariana Fernandez. Sound Design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Costume Design by Kim Sammis. Props Design: Elizabeth Long. Stage Manager: Katie Bücher. Final Weekend Stage Manager: Sarah Magno. Original musical compositions: David Schulman. Cast features four actors, each alternating in the roles of Doctor/Patient: David Gaines, Tuyet Thi Pham, Carlos Saldana; and Eva Wilhelm.